In the Name of God, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful
From the very beginning of my school years, I was faced with extreme dislike – if not outright hostility and hatred – for my skin color. On the first day of kindergarten, I sat next to a kid on the bus, and when he saw me he frowned. I never met him before. Another time, two girls said in unison, “I don’t want to sit next to Hesham!” The most hurtful incident is when a fellow schoolmate – with his eyes filled with hatred – pushed me on the school yard while screaming “Go back to your country!” This confused me, because, America is my country.
Yet, with the incessant hatred for my skin color, I never believed America was my country. I never felt like America was my country. These feelings intensified as I got older. The hatred for my skin color died down, but it was replaced with ridicule for my religious beliefs. I was an observant Muslim growing up, which meant no dating, no drinking, no smoking, etc. Thus, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt more and more isolated from my society, my peers, and my country. I felt less and less American. In fact, when someone asked me “Where are you from?”, I would never answer “America.” Rather, I would say, “Egypt,” the land of my ancestors.
These experiences set me up for a faith crisis in college, and it lead to the dark days of my spirituality, when – after flirting with conversion to Christianity – I became a horribly intolerant, narrow-minded fundamentalist. I actually wrote a book about these experiences, but I have not found a publisher yet. So, if any of you know of a publisher or agent who could take me up, I’m all ears (sorry about that plug…I couldn’t resist).
I was cured of my fundamentalism on 9/11 (that’s also in the book…er…sorry about that again!). It was also on 9/11 that I fully became an American, and I have never turned back. And it was wonderfully liberating. Now, when someone asks me “Where are you from?” I happily say, “The United States.” In fact, I was sitting among a number of fellow Muslims, many of whom are immigrants, and we went around introducing ourselves by giving our names and countries of origin. In the past, I would have said “I am your brother Hesham Hassaballa from Egypt.” I did not say that. Rather, I said: “I am your brother Hesham Hassaballa from the United States.” Some in the crowd growled, but I did not care. I am an American, and I am not ashamed of saying so.
Embracing my American-ness was one of the best things that happened to me, and it is something every American Muslim must do. American Muslims must live and breathe their American-ness and see this country as their country, their home. Frequently, the sons and daughters of immigrants have strong ties to the “mother country.” And I don’t advocate a total severing of ties to the “mother country.” Our ethnic diversity is part of what makes America beautiful. Yet, American Muslims must be just that: American. That way, they can fully engage in their society and fully contribute.
Every Prophet addressed his followers as “my people.” When we American Muslims talk to our non-Muslim neighbors about Islam, we must also address them as “my people.” We will do that only when we fully embrace our American-ness. Yet, there is also a flip side to this equation: non-Muslim Americans must not make their Muslim neighbors feel like they are outsiders.
I am as American as anybody else. The only thing that is different is my name is Egyptian, my faith is Islam, and my skin is a little darker than most other Americans. What happened to me during my childhood and adolescence should not happen to other kids, regardless of their faith or ethnic heritage. It has a devastating effect on the child’s self-esteem and self-worth. To this day, my experiences growing up have an effect on my psyche. We Americans must embrace our diversity, and we should not castigate Americans who look different, worship differently, or have different first and last names.
I am so grateful to God that He has blessed me with being an American Muslim. Here, I can worship God as a Muslim the way God wanted me to worship Him. I am also grateful that He has allowed me to fully embrace my American-ness. Growing up, I felt alienated from my country and my people. Even though I was surrounded by my people, I felt very alone. This will never happen to me again, and for that, I thank the Lord God from the bottom of my heart.